Here at the Digs we remember a time when gas stations were manned by young men in grease-stained uniforms who filled your tank for about $7, checked your oil and battery and cleaned your windshield. Then you gave him a tip.
Attached to each of these gas station was a garage bay, where a cigarette-smoking mechanic with scarred knuckles scooted under rusty heaps in search of oil leaks and faulty starters. Ah, we fondly remember his curses.
OK, we realize this memory dates us, and perhaps even betrays the fact that a member of the Digs staff was, years ago, one of those grease-stained young men.
But we resurrect this memory for a reason: Yesterday we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first drive-in gas station. It was located, of course, in Pittsburgh, at Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street.
In the Post-Gazette files, we found two pictures of the pagoda-style building. A canopy covered workers and customers as autos were fueled. Signs atop the building announced “Good Gulf Gasoline” and “Superior Auto Oil.” Men in the pictures (yes, they’re all men) wear sporting caps or bowlers.
Before the advent of the drive-in filling station, gasoline was sold at grocery stores, livery stables, hardware stores, even pharmacies. Vehicles pulled next to a curb or sidewalk, where fuel was hand-pumped into a container, then poured into the vehicle’s tank.
Some drive-in filling stations did exist before 1913, but they occupied buildings and structures that had been modified to sell gas. Pittsburgh’s was the first structure designed and built as a drive-in filling station.
On its first day, the Gulf station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon (we found one report that says this amounts to $6.39 in today’s dollars).
Later, Gulf introduced the first free road map and the first restroom opened to customers.
Much has changed in the past century. Today we fuel our own automobiles in massive stations that sell Big Gulp drinks, pizzas, milk, DVDs, lottery tickets — even firewood. Some of us buy gas at big box retailers like Costco or Walmart.
In fact, it’s now difficult to find traditional filling stations that employ attendants and mechanics. And free road maps? We don’t need those much anymore, thanks to GPS devices and Google maps.
We remain grateful, however, for those free public restrooms.